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RFID Brings Real-Time Visibility to Bataan Memorial Death March

The system recorded the progress of participating runners and walkers along a 26-mile route through the desert, activating cameras at each location and posting participants' photos on social media.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 08, 2016

When participants walked or ran through the Bataan Memorial Death March, held a few weeks ago at the White Sands Missile Range, in the New Mexican desert, radio frequency identification technology was tracking their progress and speed. The solution employed passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags on bibs, as well as RFID readers at five key locations. The Jaguar Race Timing system—provided by Innovative Timing Systems (ITS), based in St. Louis, Mo.—captured the location of every participant (to be linked to the time at which he or she reached each milestone), activated cameras at every location and linked that individual to pictures automatically taken of him or her that could then be forwarded to social-media sites.

The Bataan Memorial Death March is held annually to commemorate the World War II Bataan Death March, which took place in 1942 when the Japanese military forced 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war to march 65 miles through the tropically hot Philippine jungles, resulting in many casualties. The event is intended to honor those who took part in the actual Death March during the war, and to raise money and awareness for today's injured war veterans. Participants typically include active members of the military, as well as veterans and civilian athletes from around the world, and are met by many surviving Death March soldiers, who are now in their 90s. (This year, one survivor—Ben Skardon, age 97—completed eight and a half miles of the course.) The race, which involves walking for some, running for others, follows a 26.2-mile route through sandy terrain that includes a 400-foot vertical climb. (A 14.2-mile option—essentially, the southern portion of the 26.2-mile course—is also available.)

An array of overhead RFID reader antennas captured the RFID tag IDs of Bataan Memorial Death March participants as they crossed the starting line.
The race can take some walkers 12 hours to complete, and it takes about one and a half hours for all of the participants to reach the starting line, since, at the beginning of the event, they first file past a surviving Death March veteran and shake his hand.

This year's event involved 6,616 participants. Erin Dorrance, White Sands Missile Range's public affairs chief, says the race started at 6:30 a.m., with the last participant crossing the finish line at 10 p.m. the same day. For the first time this year, the event used a UHF RFID system from ITS. The solution included ITS' RFID readers at the starting point and finish line, as well as at three locations in between. At each site, multiple cameras were also installed, with RFID data and camera images collected by ITS' cloud-based software via a microwave transmitter that accessed a cellular network, which would have otherwise been out of range of the desert location.

"We needed the system for accountability," says David Rodriguez, White Sands Missile Range's information security officer. Although another RFID timing system had been used for several years in the past, it failed to provide a view into when participants had crossed mileposts, and thus where marchers were located at any given time. Accountability is important for several reasons, he says. "There's nothing but desert around us," he states, describing the event's venue. What's more, if anyone strays off the trail, there is the potential for walking into an unexploded ordinance possibly dating back decades.

For this year's event, each participant was assigned a bib with an ITS RFID tag attached to it. The tag is encoded with a unique ID number linked to that participant's information, such as his or her name and event category. The ID could also be linked to that person's social-media account, such as Facebook, and the team with whom that individual was participating.

An RFID reader captured tag IDs as participants crossed the starting line, reached certain milestones and passed the finish line, and identified each tag's location based on the array of antennas installed overhead. When an individual came within range of a reader, the cameras were triggered at that location and the photographs taken were linked to that individual's ID, based on the RFID tag read. The software used its own intelligence to determine the best pictures taken of each individual. It then sent four or five of those images to that person's e-mail address, as well as posting them on the participant's social-media site, if so requested.

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